My Tree of Life

A Navajo rug with a story behind it.

One of my few prized possessions — indeed, one of the very first things I packed when I returned to Arizona in September 2012, expecting the quick divorce my wasband claimed he wanted — is my Navajo rug. This is the real deal, woven by a woman named Rena Mountain who lives on the Navajo Reservation at Cedar Ridge, AZ. Ms. Mountain is known for her pictorial rugs and seems to be an expert on the Tree of Life design.

Re-Hanging My Rug

I unpacked the rug about a week ago to show Kirk. I’d been thinking about it for a while, wondering where I could hang it, and I didn’t want to pull it out until I was ready. But I also wanted to show off this prized possession to someone I thought might appreciate its beauty. (I’m not sure how impressed Kirk was.) I knew that finding a place to hang it would take some thought.

One of the great things about my new home is the windows that line most of the walls. But those windows leave very little room to hang art. They also let in a lot of sunlight — much of it direct at certain times of the day and year — that can fade colors and cause sun damage. Where could I hang it where I’d enjoy its beauty while protecting it from direct sunlight?

And if you’re wondering why I don’t just put it on the floor — after all, it is a rug — you’ve probably never owned something so beautiful and relatively valuable. Simply said, this isn’t something I could imagine walking on. Ever.

I finally decided to hang it in the hallway across from the bathroom door. There’s a little stretch of hallway there and the walls of the hall perfectly frame the rug’s 45 x 60 inch size.

Back in Arizona, I’d hung it in the living room near the fireplace with velcro on a piece of wood that fastened directly to the wall with screws. I’d sewn the soft side of the wide velcro strip to the back of the rug using big, fat, easy-to-remove stitches. I’d stapled the rough side of the velcro strip to the wood using a staple gun. Then my wasband had drilled holes in the wood and, using molly bolts for extra support in the drywall, screwed the wood strip onto the wall. When I’d taken down the rug, I’d taken down the wood strip, too. I’d even, by some miracle, kept the molly bolts and screws. So I had everything I needed to re-hang it in my new home.

Tree of Life by Rena Mountain
My Navajo rug, hung in its new home.

I did this yesterday afternoon, using my stud finder to confirm that a stud was not available and a level to make sure I mounted the wood strip properly on the wall. The whole job, including fastening the rug to the wood strip, took just 10 minutes.

And it looks great. I can even reposition the track lights in the hallway to shine directly on it if I’d like to.

I posted this photo on Facebook when I was done. Almost immediately, my friend Jeremy asked for the story behind the rug.

How did he know there was a story? There is and it’s a pretty good one. I promised a blog post — this one — to tell it.

The Story behind the Rug

It was in September of 2000 or 2001. Or possibly 2002. I’d been living in Arizona for a few years. My writing career was building momentum and I’d finished my Quicken book, which ruined ever summer, a few weeks before. I had free time and was eager to get away for a while after working too many 12-hour days at my desk to get the book done on time.

I don’t remember who came up with the idea — it might have been me — but I decided to take a road trip with two friends to the Navajo Nation Fair in Window Rock. This is an annual event, like a county fair, but its held on the reservation and has a definite Navajo flavor, with lots of Navajo arts and crafts, food, and dancing. Along the way, we’d go exploring on the Reservation, visit the Hopi Reservation (which is completely surrounded by the Navajo Reservation), and do whatever struck our fancy. In other words, we make things up as we went along. I love traveling like that.

My two companions for the trip were Shorty and Martin.

Shorty was about 10-15 years older than me, a real cowgirl who spoke with a Texas drawl and had been married four or five times. She was short (hence the name), lean, and kind of gnarly, with skin browned and somewhat wrinkled from too much time in the sun. She was currently between husbands, living in her pickup camper in a friend’s yard, with her horse staying in a pen there. Over the two or more years we were friends, she’d move from place to place — even spending a few weeks camped out in my yard and housesitting for me — work at a local dude ranch, and train my rather difficult paint horse. I’d also be the maid of honor at her Las Vegas wedding — and that’s one hell of a crazy story — spend an evening catching Colorado River toads at an off the grid adobe house she lived in for a while, and dog sit for her three dogs while she went to England with what she hoped would be her next husband — another long story.

Martin was a young — maybe 35 years old? — good-looking guy from Germany. Like so many Europeans, he’d fallen in love with the west and dreamed of being a cowboy with a Fresian horse. (Not exactly a practical choice with all that hair to keep neat and brushed.) He was in the U.S. on a visa and was friends with the man who owned the local German restaurant. He tagged along with us, smoking whenever we stopped for a break. Shorty insisted on pronouncing his name mar-TEEN, claiming that it was the German pronunciation. Since he never corrected her, I got into the habit of doing the same.

The three of us headed north in my Jeep from Wickenburg, AZ. Martin sat in the back with the luggage in the tiny space behind him.

We pretty much bee-lined it up to the Hopi Reservation. Shorty wanted to send a friend a postcard from Old Orabi, which was founded back in 1100, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements within the United States. We got there and I don’t recall there being much to see. That has a lot to do with the simple fact that the Hopi people do not generally welcome visitors and many of them prefer to continue their traditional lifestyles. We walked around among a lot of seemingly deserted pueblo style homes — the Hopi are a Pueblo tribe — and then moved on to a Post Office where Shorty could mail her card. I’m pretty sure that was Hotevilla-Bacavi, also on Third Mesa.

The post office had a bulletin board and there was a card on it advertising fresh ground cornmeal. We found a payphone — back in those days, we didn’t all have cell phones — and called the number. We then got directions to a Hopi woman’s house nearby. We drove over and were welcomed in. The house was simple but modern, sparsely furnished but clean and comfortable. I clearly remember there being a bunch of kittens playing together in one of the rooms. The cornmeal, we were told, was leftover from a wedding ceremony. (Corn is an important crop to the Hopi people and plays a big role in their traditions.) It was stored in a big galvanized trashcan, lined with a plastic bag. The woman used a tin can to scoop out the cornmeal — did I mention that it was blue? — and put it into a Bluebird Flour bag (which I still have). Shorty paid for the cornmeal — I can’t remember how much, but it wasn’t much. The woman, likely seeing the opportunity of spreading tourist dollars to friends, told us about another woman who made dance shawls. Before you could say Kykotsmovi Village, we were off to another home. Shorty wound up buying two or three of the shawls. They weren’t my style, so I declined.

I totally enjoyed this side trip — cornmeal and dance shawls — because it gave me an opportunity to see the modern culture of these very private people.

Afterwards, we stopped by the Hopi Cultural Center, where I bought a “Grandmother” cradle Kachina, thus starting my limited Kachina collection. Our last stop in the Hopi land was Tsakurshovi, a native crafts shop in Shongopovi. That’s where I was introduced to Hopi Tea. I’d later come back to this wonderful shop several times to add to my Kachina collection.

We continued on our way, leaving the Hopi Reservation and continuing through the Navajo Reservation. We stopped at the Hubbell Trading Post in Ganado, which is a National Historic Site and still a trading post. I wandered into the Rug Room and that’s when I saw it: the most beautiful rug I’d ever laid eyes on. Rena Mountain’s Tree of Life.

I fully admit that when I looked at the price tag I had a serious case of sticker shock. I’d never spent that kind of money on anything that couldn’t be driven or slept in.

I left the room and continued wandering around the Trading Post. But I kept thinking about it.

I wanted the rug. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything as utterly impractical as that rug as badly as I wanted that rug.

I grabbed Shorty and brought her into the room to see it. I was hoping she’d talk me out of buying it. But how could she? It was beautiful. And we both knew that I could afford it.

Yes, I could afford it. As I said earlier, my writing career was booming and I was bringing in more in royalties every year. I’d been investing in real estate and, in October 2000, bought my first helicopter. But my mind was stuck in budget mode and the idea of spending that kind of money on a rug I couldn’t even walk on was outrageous.

But I could afford it. And Shorty wasn’t going to talk me out of it.

So I got a sales person and brought her over to the rug. I timidly asked if they could do anything for me on the price. She cut it by $500. The next thing I knew, I was at the cash register with my American Express card out.

The cashier had to call American Express. They wanted to talk to me. I’d never spent this much on my card before and they wanted to make sure it was me.

The clerk folded up the rug and they put it in a plastic bag that looked remarkably like a garbage bag. I put it in the Jeep, way under the seat. For the next few days, I’d take it into the motel room at night and worry about someone stealing it out of the Jeep during the day.

We continued the trip. The Navajo Nation Fair was an amazing event. We saw more rugs on display — if I hadn’t already bought one, I would have bought one at the fair — ate mutton, saw traditional dancing and costumes, and watched the country’s only all-Indian rodeo, which was announced in both English and Navajo.

After two days of that — staying in a Gallup Hotel because Window Rock’s were booked — we headed out to Canyon de Chelly near Chinle, AZ. This is a National Monument with limited access. Because we had a 4WD vehicle, we hired a Navajo guide who rode with us in the Jeep and told us about what we were seeing. I loved the sound of his voice and the way he phrased things and repeated certain things in almost a sing-songy way. It was there that I learned about the brutality of Custer and his soldiers and got an idea of how mistreated Native Americans were in the 1800s. When I saw a point of interest — some rock formation — and asked him about it, he was strangely quiet. I asked him if there was some significance to the place that they didn’t share with visitors and he nodded. I asked him if there were many places in the canyon like that and he nodded again. I didn’t ask any more. I respect the culture and privacy of these people. Not everything needs to be a tourist attraction or photo opportunity.

I don’t remember getting into Monument Valley on that trip. I suspect we went home right after Canyon de Chelly. I do recall exploring a road back near Tuba City with views down from a mesa top and seeing petroglyphs that weren’t on any map. Real exploring — not following tourist guidebooks — that’s how I like to travel.

Certificate of Authenticity
The Certificate of Authenticity, with a photo of the weaver, hung beside the rug for years.

I got home with the rug and, with my wasband’s assistance, hung it on the wall as described above. I took the tag, which featured a photo of Ms. Mountain holding up the rug, and asked my friend Janet’s partner to mat and frame it for me. It hung on the wall beside the rug. (I just spent about 30 minutes looking for a photo of how they hung together but can’t find one — all the photos I have of my house’s interior are either of damage/neglect by my wasband while I was in Washington or after I’d begun packing. As I mentioned earlier, the rug was one of the first things to be packed.)

Postscript

Time marched on. Although that was one of the most memorable trips of my life, it was not to be repeated. Shorty married Martin to keep him from getting booted out of the country. I was maid of honor/witness at the crazy Las Vegas wedding. Later, Shorty met her “soulmate,” a retiree from Britain who stayed at the dude ranch where she worked. Their courtship lasted a few months, during which time I assume she and Martin were divorced. But the wedding plans fell through and it wasn’t long before both she and Martin fell out of my life.

I went back to the Navajo Nation Fair the following year. It was a non-event. The Navajo young people were wearing the same falling-down pants as the rest of the brain-dead youth in our country and much of the charm I’d experienced the year before was gone. You know what they say: you can never go back. This is a perfect example.

But the rug remains and now it hangs in my new home to be part of my new life.

I’m glad to have it and the memories that go with it.

Camping in the North Cascades

My first real camping trip in at least 15 years is an exhausting ton of fun.

Last week, Kirk and I went off-the-grid on a 5-day/4-night camping trip in Washington’s North Cascades National Park.

To many people, the North Cascades is a “drive-thru” park. That’s because one of the nation’s most scenic roads, the North Cascades Highway (SR 20) winds right through it. It’s also part of the Cascade Loop, a 400-mile driving tour through the Cascade Mountains. The loop runs right through Wenatchee, up Route 97 through Chelan, up the Methow Valley on Route 153, past Twisp and Winthrop on Route 20, and then through the North Cascades Mountains past Washington Pass and the Skagit River dams and their lakes: Ross, Diablo, and Gorge. It eventually dumps down into the Seattle area where it goes south, eventually hooking up with Route 2 for the eastbound leg up Highway 2 through Stevens Pass, Leavenworth, and Cashmere, back to Wenatchee.

Although I’ve spent eight summers in Washington and have been living full-time in the area for the past two years, I’d never driven any part of the North Cascades Highway. I was supposed to do a camping trip up there in September 2012, but more pressing matters brought me home to Arizona early that year. But this year, I planned two trips that way: a drive-thru trip on motorcycles with my friend Bob to Friday Harbor later this month and a camping trip with Kirk at the beginning of the month.

The Gear

I had all my camping gear from when I brought it to Washington in 2012. Back then, I had the silly notion that my wasband, who claimed to want to spend the summer with me, would go boat camping out on the Columbia River. So when I packed up my RV for my annual migration north, I packed up all the gear we’d need: the good tent, sleeping bags, cotton sleeping sacks, mess kit, lantern, etc. My wasband apparently had other ideas, so we never used the equipment together again. But it sure came in handy when I packed for this trip.

Although Kirk has an all-wheel-drive vehicle, I really wanted to take the Jeep. I thought there might be some back road opportunities. I’d already removed the back seat from the Jeep so there was plenty of open space back there. The trick was to stow the gear in boxes that would be organized and easy to pack.

Fortunately, I had a number of wheeled storage bins, including a very large, heavy duty Husky toolbox I’d bought to store tools before I had a building on my future homesite. That became the camping gear box and it held everything we’d need to set up camp: tent, sleeping bags, sleeping sacks, tarp, rope, bungee balls, queen sized air mattress, and three air pumps (two battery and one manual).

I used another smaller box for kitchen items: butane camp stove (which I’d bought in 2012 but had never used), two covered frying pans, a coffee pot, a small bin full of dinnerware and cups, and the vitally important equipment to make coffee. That box also took the items that didn’t need to be kept cold: coffee, scones I’d made the day before, bread, cookies, oil for cooking, etc.

I also have a wheeled cooler I bought for my boat. I filled that with frozen meats (burgers, chicken, and sausage) and a wide range of vegetables from our gardens (beans, peppers, and tomatoes from Kirk’s; eggplant, onions, garlic, and cherry tomatoes from mine). I added milk for my coffee, eggs from my chickens, cheese, and two pounds of cold cuts (turkey and ham) for lunch, Two solid ice half-gallon milk bottles would help keep everything cool for the five days we expected to be out.

I packed a bag with clothes and toiletries, Kirk packed two smaller bags with the same. He also brought along his two inflatable kayaks — mostly because I didn’t have a roof rack for mine — life jackets, and paddles. I brought my portable propane grill, which I bought years ago for travel with the RV — it folds up into its own little carry bag.

Packed Jeep
The Jeep was jam-packed for our camping trip.

Packing all this stuff into the Jeep was a bit of a challenge. When we were finished, the back of the Jeep was completely crammed with stuff. So crammed, in fact, that Penny had to ride on Kirk’s lap for the drive.

The Drive Up

We started out at about 10 AM on Monday, heading north on Route 2 to avoid having to drive through Chelan. We filled the Jeep with gas before we got too far, then settled in for the long drive to Twisp, our first stop, which was on Highway 20 not far from where the North Cascades Highway begins.

Twisp is a great place to stop at mealtime. There are two good places to eat there. Most folks like Cinnamon Twisp, which is where we stopped. It’s a great bakery that’s also open for breakfast and lunch. We sat outside with Penny, eating fresh-made sandwiches on whole grain bread. Of course, I bought an oat bar for dessert.

(In case you’re wondering, other place I like to eat in Twisp is the natural foods store next door, the Glover Street Market. Their Curry Stew and Forbidden Rice Bowl are great warmups for cold winter days. I usually pass through Twisp on my cross-country ski trip to Winthrop every Christmas.)

Kirk with Cider
Kirk posed with a taste of cider at the Methow Valley Ciderhouse.

We continued on our way, stopping briefly at Winthrop in search of a good map. We found several in the local visitor’s center. That’s also where we decided to make a quick stop at the Methow Valley Ciderhouse, just outside of town. This is a funky cool place that looks like it would be fun to visit with a bunch of friends. But that Monday morning, it was just us and the owner. We tasted a flight of ciders and I have to admit that I wasn’t terribly impressed. We left empty-handed and continued on our way.

Our next stop was quite a few miles up the road, at Washington Pass. There’s a big fancy overlook there with lots of parking and a short trail to a lookout point. We parked and made the climb. The view was spectacular, but smoke in the area from the Wolverine Fire on Lake Chelan had drifted into the area, muddying the sky. We’d been driving in the haze since leaving my home that morning and to see it this far up in the mountains was very disheartening. Fortunately, the smoke cleared out as we headed down from the pass, deeper into the Cascades.

Washington Pass Panorama
A panoramic view from the overlook at Washington Pass.

Somewhere along the ride, cell phone service completely dropped out. It would be like that for most of our stay in the area.

The First Camp and Hike

We continued on our way, stopping at just one more overlook. But that time, it was after 3 PM and I was starting to get worried about finding a decent campsite. We’d already decided to camp at Colonial Creek Campground on Diablo (pronounced “Die-ah-blow”) Lake. The campground map showed some tent sites right on the lake and I was hoping to get one of those. By the time we arrived, however, it didn’t seem like any of those sites were open. We wound up instead on a nice, private wooded site. We paid the fee for one night and set up camp.

I was very pleased to see that the tent and its poles were still in perfect condition. I’d bought the tent back in 1992 for motorcycle camping. We needed a good 3-man tent with poles that folded up short enough to be packed on a motorcycle. This was a great tent that had made several motorcycle trips with me and my wasband, including our epic Skyline Drive/Blue Ridge Parkway/Outerbank Islands adventure in 1992 or 1993. Its main drawback was that it wasn’t tall enough to stand up in. That wasn’t such a big deal when I was in my 30s, but 20 years later, it matters, especially when I try to dress. (I wound up changing my clothes outside the tent; our site had enough privacy to make modesty a non-issue.)

The air mattress was another story. Although we’d tested it at Kirk’s place and it had lost some air there, Kirk was convinced that the valves hadn’t been properly closed during our test. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the valves. The mattress, which was admittedly old, apparently had other leaks. It wouldn’t hold air. With no camp store in the area, we couldn’t replace it that first night. So Kirk spread out all our sleeping bags and blankets and towels as padding under where we would sleep.

The campground featured flush toilets in several well-kept buildings on the camp roads, water spigots, and a mix of RV and tent sites. There was a fishing pier and a boat launch. (Boats are limited to 14 feet in the lake, which is why I didn’t bring mine.) Each site had a large picnic table, a designated tent area that was level and smooth, a fire pit (which was useless with a fire ban in effect), and a bear box. A bear box is a secure place you can store anything that smells like it could be food; every night we had to pack up our kitchen box and cooler and stow them inside it.

Kirk and the Big Trees
Here’s Kirk along the Thunder Creek Nature Trail. There are some seriously big trees throughout the park.

We had burgers and green beans for dinner, then headed out on a trail that led from the campground up Thunder Creek. There was a nature trail off the main trail, a 0.9 mile loop that climbed steeply up the side of the mountain, past rock slides, fallen trees, moss, ferns, and old growth cedars and pines. Numbered sign posts corresponded with a guide we didn’t have so we amused ourselves by making up interpretive comments about what we saw at each sign post. Kirk was very good at this — way better than me.

Later that night, we crawled into the tent and settled down on the relatively hard ground. I thought I’d have trouble sleeping, but I must have been exhausted because I slept surprisingly well. Penny slept like a log, mostly because I’d brought along her bed and she was perfectly comfortable.

Day 2: Hiking, Shopping, Moving, Napping, and Hiking

I heated up the scones with butter in a frying pan the next morning for breakfast. The coffee was good and hot. Because the campground was down in a valley, it took a while for the sun to reach us. I think it may have been a bit overcast, too, and that burned off as we headed out on our morning hike.

Colonial Creek
Colonial Creek is full of the “glacial flour” that gives it and Diablo Lake their milky blue-green color.

The hike was on the Thunder Knob Trail. This was a 3.6 round-trip hike that climbed about 425 feet to the top of a heavily wooded hill on the lake. From our campsite, the trailhead was about 1/2 mile away, so we walked to it. The trail starts by crossing Colonial Creek, where glacial runoff flows down the mountain and into Diablo Lake. It then winds through the woods, climbing up on switchbacks. I was still fresh and full of coffee so I didn’t need more than a few short rests. Only one hiker passed us on the way up. At the top were two viewpoints looking down at Diablo Lake and across at the peaks it’s nestled in. It was mind-boggingly beautiful.

Diablo Lake from Thunder Knob
Diablo Lake from one of Thunder Knob’s lookout points.

On the way back, we took a walk along the lakeside campsites. Some of the previous day’s campers had departed. We found an excellent site right on the lake and wasted no time staking it out for ourselves. Then we spent about an hour packing up our original camp, moving everything over to the new one, and setting up the camp again. The old air mattress wound up in a dumpster.

Campsite Campsite
Two views of our campsite: from the lake looking in (left) and from the campsite looking out toward the lake (right). We were right on the lake.

After a good lunch of thick sandwiches and chips, we hopped into the Jeep and headed out to the nearest town, Newhalem, in search of a new air mattress. This was a nine or so mile drive farther down Route 20. Along the way, we passed the Diablo Dam and powerhouse, Gorge Lake, Gorge Falls, and the Gorge Dam.

Just as we got into town, my cell phone, which had been charging in a cradle, came to life with a handful of text messages — including a thank you note from the Realtor who had finally sold my old Arizona house. Let’s just say that I wasn’t the only one celebrating that sale with champagne.

Newhalem is a “company town” that was built by Seattle City Light, the publicly owned power company that owns and operates the three hydro-electric power plants on the Skagit River. It features a general store, a restaurant with odd hours, and a bunch of buildings for company use. Employees who work in the area live in town or in the small community of Diablo, just downstream from the Diablo Dam.

We beelined it to the General Store in search of a new air mattress. The store had a tiny bit of camping gear but no air mattresses. The clerk suggested Marblemount, 14 miles farther up the road.

We stopped for a few minutes at the Visitor Center, which had the usual collection of displays about the river, dams, lakes, salmon, and original native settlers. Kirk spotted a sign with information about a “Dam Good Chicken Dinner” and nighttime tour of Ladder Creek Falls that coming Thursday night. He signed us up. I bought a good trail map.

Then it was on to Marblemount, which isn’t much bigger than Newhalem. The store there had a bit more camping gear, much of it stowed away in a back room. There were some roll-up pads that would have helped us in a pinch. But we were ready to try our luck at Concrete, even farther up the road, when I spotted some twin sized Coleman air mattresses on a bottom shelf. We bought two, feeling very lucky to have found them.

Park Sign
Penny and I posed atop the fake snow at the park entrance sign.

We gassed up the Jeep at the only gas station I’d seen since leaving Winthrop the day before and headed back to the campsite, stopping for some super touristy photos at the park entrance sign, a visit to Gorge Falls, and a very short hike to what was supposed to be an overlook of the Gorge Dam but was blocked by trees.

Back at the campsite, we inflated the two air mattresses and stuffed them into the tent. They literally filled the tent’s floor. Then Kirk inflated his kayaks while Penny went on chipmunk patrol around our site. Sometime around mid afternoon, we found our way into the tent for a nap. The air mattresses were perfect! We woke up near dinner time. I cooked up a concoction of eggplant, garlic, olive oil, and polenta that came out pretty good. We had that with grilled sausages.

Kirk in a Tree
Another shot of Kirk, this time in a tree.

After cleaning up, it was time for our evening hike. We headed back up the Thunder Creek Trail which followed the lake shore up Thunder Creek. It was yet another heavily wooded trail, surrounded by tall, old growth trees but offering few views of either the lake or the creek. Although the trail went on for miles, the idea was to hike until 7:30 and turn back. 7:29 found us at a grove of old growth trees with a big hollow one that was obviously a spot for taking photos. So we took one.

I slept amazingly well that night.

Day 3: Ross Lake, Rain, and the Folks from Maryland

Eggs with tomatoes, onions, pepper, and cheese for breakfast. And coffee, of course.

After cleaning up, we headed out on a hike to Ross Lake Resort. This is one of only two lodging facilities inside the park and it isn’t easy to get to because there’s no road to it. There seems to be just a few ways of getting there. The easiest is to take a ferry from Diablo Dam up to the portage area near Ross Dam, get on the portage truck, and then take a water taxi across Ross Lake. If you’re on a kayak, you can launch it at the Colonial Creek campground, paddle 5 miles up Diablo Lake, catch the portage truck to Ross Lake, and then paddle across. Or you can do what we did: park at the Ross Dam Trail trailhead, hike down to the dam, cross the dam, and hike up the lake to Ross Lake Resort. Although I didn’t have my GPS app tracking us, I estimate the total mileage to be about 2 to 3 miles each way.

Ross Dam
Ross Dam was built with future expansion in mind.

It was a pleasant hike on narrow, well-worn trails. We crossed a creek on a nice wooden bridge early on, near the parking area — more glacial runoff. Then a descent down almost to lake level. Crossing the dam was interesting; I later found out that the reason the Dam has the stepped sides is so that it can be built up to enlarge it at a future date. (Apparently, the Canadians aren’t too happy with that plan.) On the other side, I was surprised to see the trail climb up the side of the hill — I hadn’t planned on two climbs on the return trip — but it eventually leveled out as it headed up lake. We met two hikers waiting for friends at a trail intersection and turned right, down the hill to Ross Lake Resort.

Ross Lake Resort consists of 12 cabins on floating platforms: house barges, in effect. They’re all moored against the shore. There’s an office, a boat rental facility, and not much else. No restaurant, no store beyond snacks. Anyone who stays there not only has to get there, but he has to bring in all his provisions. The cabins are various sizes and include everything you need to live comfortably for the length of your stay. Most folks likely spend most of their stay boating and fishing; most cabins had a boat tied up out front. And of course, the place was entirely off the communication grid. Talk about a comfortable remote getaway! Sign me up!

Ross Lake Resort
Ross Lake Resort consists of a string of floating cabins.

I let Penny off her leash to play with the other dogs, including a boxer named Maple. Kirk and I rested, snacked on nuts and energy bars we’d brought along, and prepared mentally for the walk back. By that time, it was starting to cloud up. We’d heard in Newhalem the day before that there was a 20% chance of rain on Wednesday and it seemed to be coming. The first small drops started falling on us as we crossed the dam. The drizzle continued, on and off, but we arrived back at the Jeep dry enough.

We drove back toward the campground and beyond. Kirk wanted to check out the town of Diablo. I directed him on a turn that took us over the Diablo Dam instead. That put us at the Seattle City Lights Ferry terminal instead. We saw a few young deer and followed a sign for the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. I was hoping they had a restaurant where I could get something hot to eat, like soup or chili. I ran in to investigate and discovered the only other lodging place in the park: a learning center with weekend programs on a wide variety of topics. I took some literature to check it out later on.

We continued along Highway 20 and soon found ourselves back in Newhalem. (My phone alerted me when we were getting close by displaying a list of new text messages and missed calls.) I bought a can of chili in the General Store and we headed back.

Tarp over Table
We rigged up this great old ripstop nylon tarp over our table. (They don’t seem to make tarps like this anymore.)

By this time, it was raining lightly but steadily. It let up a bit when we reached camp and we had enough time to heat and eat the chili and some sandwiches before it started up again. I mentioned the tarp I’d brought along and we pulled it out, along with the rope and bungee balls I had. It took two tries, but soon we had it hanging nicely from four trees. We moved the table under it just before the rain started coming down in earnest.

We read and napped the afternoon away. The tent stayed remarkably dry, despite the fact that we hadn’t properly tied out the fly. The tarp completely covered the table. I propped a walking stick under its middle on top of the table to raise it and help the water find a way off.

Later, we ran to the bathroom, took care of business, and waited in the shelter of the building overhang for the run back. That’s when we met a family from Maryland who were camped near us and had just returned from a very long hike. They were disappointed that they didn’t have any shelter from the rain and would likely be eating cold food inside their tent. So we invited them to bring their food over and prepare it under our tarp with us. The tables were big enough for all six of us to eat outdoors and keep dry. I don’t think they thought we were serious, but a while later, when we were preparing to make our own dinner, Kirk ran over to their site and reminded them they had the option of joining us. I had just begun heating up the frying pan for a stir fry of green beans (of course), onions, tomatoes, and chicken when they arrived with two big ham steaks, the biggest yam I’d ever seen, two stoves, and two frying pans. Soon we were all cooking and chatting and then eating in the bright light of my old camping lantern, which had to be at least 25 years old.

It was dark when they left. We cleaned up, packed up the bear box for the night, and turned in. It was still raining. But by morning, the only rain sound was the dripping of water through the trees.

Day 4: Long Hike, Where I Sh*t in the Woods, Bear Sighting, Dam Good Chicken

Kirk in a Kayak
Kirk headed out for a pre-breakfast paddle on Thursday morning.

It was still cloudy when we woke up, but with low clouds that clung to the mountainsides offering glimpses of blue sky beyond. After coffee, Kirk took one of the kayaks out on the lake, which was as smooth as glass. I stayed behind and prepped to make breakfast. When he returned, we had the last of the eggs and onions. And the scones. The cooler was getting empty enough to start storing other food in it. The ice was nearly gone, but it was cool enough.

Soon I couldn’t resist the call of the smooth lake surface beyond our campsite. I changed into shorts and climbed into the kayak for a quick paddle up the lake toward Thunder Creek. There were geese feeding on grassy areas and a low ground fog hanging over the water surface here and there. I snapped a few photos with my camera before turning back. The wind was just beginning to pick up when I pulled into shore.

Diablow Lake
A view up the Thunder Creek arm of Diablo Lake from a kayak, early in the morning.

We debated two hikes from the same trailhead that morning: East Bank and Happy Panther. Both ran alongside the Ruby Arm of Ross Lake. Although it seemed to me that Happy Panther Trail might run closer to lakeside, Kirk opted for the East Bank Trail. So we headed that way, descending down to lake level where Panther Creek and Ruby Creek met. There was an interpretative sign there with information about mining operations that had been in the area, as well as a hermit who lived in a home across the creek. We crossed the bridge and started up the trail on the other side, which led downstream toward the lake as it climbed gradually up the hillside. Yet another densely forested trail, soon there was no sign of the creek, although we could hear it and the cars on the road we’d come in on. Soon even that faded away as we walked through the forest on what used to be a road, crossing small creeks along the way.

Open Air Privacy
With no one around, this beats a stinky outhouse any day.

My GPS app, which I’d preloaded with topo maps of the area, showed a barn and horse meadow and we tried unsuccessfully to find that. I think we may have found where it had been, though. We certainly found meadow areas, long overgrown. A little beyond that was the Ruby Pasture campsite, where someone had hung his covered hammock between two trees before heading out on a hike. There was a sign for a toilet and I followed it through the woods. It ended at a pit toilet out in the open with its seat facing the forest and lake. It was probably the nicest pit toilet I’ve ever used.

After a short rest, we headed back. Thats when my leg muscles started aching. I think the rest was the mistake — it seemed to flip a pain switch inside me. I joked that I’d reached my weekly hiking distance limit of 10 miles and now my body was shutting down. I kept a slow pace on the way back, despite the mostly level terrain for the first part. That was probably a good thing. Because I’d hung back, Kirk’s approach down the trail was quieter. So quiet, in fact, that the bear about 100 feet off the trail didn’t hear us until I joined him for a look. It was a young bear — maybe a year old — and it seemed to be alone. After taking a good look at us, it headed up the hillside away from us. I like to think that Penny’s tentative bark drove him off. I took two pictures, but I won’t waste your time or mine sharing them; the bear is nothing more than a black lump in the trees.

I’ll admit that it was great to get back to the Jeep. I was exhausted. We’d only hiked about six miles, but I’d done so much hiking during the week that I really was beginning to tire out.

We went back to the campsite for a quick bite to eat. It was late — about 3 PM — and we didn’t want to ruin our appetite for the dinner later that evening. Then we were back on the road, this time zeroing in on the tiny community of Diablo along the way. This is a collection of company housing for the folks who work at the dams. A bunch of houses that all look the same and a road that terminated at Diablo Dam.

Number 6
I felt a little like a kid climbing up on this nicely preserved steam engine.

From there, it was on to Newhalem. We bought a frozen burrito for the next day’s breakfast — we’d run out of breakfast food — climbed the old steam engine parked nearby, walked the 1/3 mile long Trail of the Cedars Nature Walk, and then checked out the Ladder Creek Falls trail, where we’d be walking later that evening. I was too pooped to make that climb before dinner, so I hung back and waited for Kirk, answering a few text messages and posting a photo or two on Facebook and Twitter while I had cell service.

We got to the Gorge Inn dining room just in time for dinner. It was cafeteria style dining with family style seating. I got to sit beside the ranger who would be leading the walk after dinner. Across from us were a pair of brothers who had grown up in the area and were revisiting it as adults. Dinner was fried chicken, using the same recipe that had been used when the dining hall first opened, with mashed potatoes, and gravy. And green beans, if you can believe that. Dessert was homemade apple pie and ice cream. We left feeling stuffed. I got a doggie bag of chicken skins and meat for Penny and left it for her in the Jeep before we started the walk.

Ladder Creek Falls
One of the ways that Seattle City Light got early support for their dam project was to offer nightly tours of these falls lit up much as they are now. Electricity was new back then so this was a real treat for visitors.

There was a group of about 40 of us for the evening walk. The ranger took his time getting from the Inn to the falls trail — he needed to wait for the lights to come on. Along the way, he talked about the natural and social history of the area, including the history of the dams along the Skagit River. Finally, we reached the start of the falls walk. The lights up the trail were turned on and the colored lights on the rushing creek and falls were doing their thing. We walked along the trail with our companions, stopping to look at the lights along the way. It was funky weird and thoroughly enjoyable.

It was nearly 10 PM by the time we got back to our campsite. We fell into the tent and got right to sleep.

Day 5: Views, a Hike, and a Walk around Winthrop

We heated up that burrito in a frying pan for breakfast. It was remarkably good. But then again, everything tastes good when you’re camping.

We packed up camp at a leisurely pace. Everything was dry. I didn’t bother washing the dishes since the next time they’d be out was home, with my dishwasher handy. We got everything back into the Jeep and even had room to put Penny’s bed up on top of one of the camp boxes, behind the driver’s seat.

We headed out, making just one stop in the park before leaving: Diablo Lake Overlook. We’d stopped there before, but the light and sky was much prettier that morning and I wanted a good photo.

Diablo Lake
I shot this using the pano feature of my iPhone; panoramas don’t have to be wide.

Rainy Lake
Rainy Lake. Can you see the waterfall just left of center in this shot? It was so quiet, we could hear it from the trail’s end.

Then it was back down the road toward Winthrop and home. But not before one more hike. We stopped at the trailhead for Rainy Lake. This was a “handicap accessible” trail, meaning that it was paved the entire way. It wound through forest, under a canopy of fresh-smelling foliage, with signs that pointed out the different vegetation along the way. At the end of the trail was the lake, nestled into a glacier-dug cavity. The entire lake is surrounded by mountains and a waterfall at the south end feeds it with a healthy flow from melting glaciers out of sight above it. Amazingly, there was no one there when we arrived. We climbed down to the water’s edge and watched fish swimming in the clear water. We also found some kind of water bugs in the shallow water that were strangely fascinating to watch.

Washington Pass View
Another view from Washington Pass.

Back in the Jeep, we continued toward home. We stopped again at Washington Pass. Although we’d started to notice smoke again, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been on Monday. I wondered if the Wolverine Fire had gotten some of the rain we did on Wednesday.

From there, it was downhill and eventually back in civilization. We passed the turn off for Mazama without stopping and headed into Winthrop, which was surprisingly busy for a Friday midday. We had lunch at a Mexican place — I felt like having a hot, hearty meal — and then walked around town. I bought a birthday present for my friend Bob who turns 65 later this week. After a few hours in town, we got into the Jeep and pointed it toward home again. We stopped for fuel in Twisp but skillfully avoided the bakery, which I longed to visit.

The final stop along the way was at the Orondo Cider Works, which I thought was a cidery. Instead, it’s more of a farmstand that also sells cider. I bought an 8-ounce bottle to drink immediately — I was parched — and Kirk bought a gallon to split with me at home.

It was nearly 5 PM when we pulled into my driveway. We unloaded the Jeep and unpacked the perishables. I checked the chickens — they’d laid nearly 2 dozen eggs! — and irrigation. Everything was fine. Nice to know that I can leave for 5 days without having to worry about anything at home.

Final Thoughts

The trip had been great — everything I wanted and more. Kirk is a good traveling companion who prevents me from being lazy when I might be. We stayed active most of the time and I really got a workout that I needed.

But what surprised me the most was how well we’d packed for this trip. We had everything we needed with some minor exceptions:

  • A second rope would have made hanging the tarp easier.
  • Duct tape would have made it possible to repair the storage box for my camp stove when it cracked.
  • Fresh batteries for the pumps would have made them work a bit faster.
  • Throw rug would have been nice to have outside the tent to keep the entranceway clean.
  • Some canned chili or soup would have been nice when the weather turned rainy.
  • More breakfast food. I honestly hadn’t expected us to stay four nights.

The camp boxes made bringing equipment down to the lakeside campsite — which was not near the car — very easy. And they also made it easy to keep things secure and dry when the wind kicked up or it rained.

There were only three casualties on the trip:

  • Kirk’s air mattress. Admittedly, it was past its prime.
  • One of my folding chairs. I carry two in the Jeep but broke one when we sat out by the lake one evening.
  • Ground cloth. This old piece of plastic, which had to be at least 20 years old, was stuffed in the tent bag. It had become brittle and although it worked for this trip, it would not be good for the next.

Would I do it again? Hell yes! But I think we’ll take Kirk’s big tent next time. I’m getting too old to crawl in and out of that old tent’s doorway.

Icicle Creek Hiking

Hiking in the woods in the Icicle Creek drainage.

I really enjoy hiking — but with some limitations. I can hike all day on relatively flat terrain. If the hike has a climb, I prefer that the climb be at the beginning of the hike with the descent at the end. I’m easily winded on uphill climbs — and have been like that all my life, even when I was young and super slim — but have absolutely no trouble going downhill. On hot days, I prefer hiking in areas with at least partial shade. On cold days, put me out in the sun.

Icicle Gorge Trail

A few weeks ago, Kirk and I did the Icicle Gorge loop trail. That’s up Icicle Creek, not far from Leavenworth. The trail winds through forest and clearing, mostly following Icicle Creek. The water was still running pretty good, the creek fed by meltoff from snowpack and small glaciers up in the east side of the Cascade Mountains. It thunders through several narrow channels along the streambed — the gorge of the trail’s name.

Icicle Gorge Trail
The trail wound along the side of the creek, fringed with tall pines and wildflowers.

This was my second time hiking the trail. It’s just the kind of trail I like for a summer hike, with gentle uphill and downhill climbs, mostly in the shade of tall pine and other trees with a handful of open grassy meadows along the way. I’d done it the year before with my friend Alyse.

We got on the loop heading downstream first, crossing a footbridge at a narrow part of the gorge. From there, we headed back upstream. At first, we were along Icicle Creek, but the trail moves away from the creek, into the forest. At one point, it winds up to the top of a small hill with a monument that overlooks a bend in the creek. Then it descends back down to the creek, crossing Trout Creek not far when it meets Icicle.

Trout Creek
The trail crosses Trout Creek at a small footbridge in the forest.

We stopped along the creek for a snack of nuts and fruit and energy bars. The rocks there were worn by centuries of water flow, with some carved pockets filled with stagnant water. The sound of the rushing creek was oddly calming.

Swimming Hole
Just downstream from this bridge was a deep swimming hole just perfect for a refreshing dip.

The trail crossed Icicle Creek again at the Chatter Creek campground. There’s an auto bridge there and beneath it, a cascade feeding a deep swimming hole. We climbed down onto the rocks bordering the deepest part. A few people were farther downstream, at a sandbar that helped hold the water back.

I threw Penny in to cool her and pulled her out when she swam ashore; after that, she wouldn’t stay with us. (I had to put her on a leash a while later, just to keep her near.)

Kirk changed into his swimming trucks and wasted no time diving in. I was a little tougher to convince. I hadn’t brought a bathing suit. But after a while, I decided that the water looked too good to pass up. I stripped off my shorts and went in in my panties, tank top, and sport bra. The water was delightful — deep, clean, and refreshing. Probably the best swimming hole I’d ever been to.

Indian Paintbrush
Indian Paintbrush is one of many wildflowers we spotted along the trail.

After our swim, we got back on the trail and continued the loop. We were on the return trip now. The trail wound mostly through dense woods, coming very close a few times to the gravel road that led to the campground. I’d brought along my Nikon with its 10-24mm lens and took some photos of flowers and tiny waterfalls along the way.

We were back in the parking area about three hours after we’d started the hike. We’d walked a leisurely 4 miles or so. A great hike I’d definitely do again — especially on a hot summer day. Next time, I’ll wear a swimsuit under my shorts.

Icicle Creek Trail

Tiny Creek
We crossed this tiny creek on our hike. The forest was dense and cool.

On Friday, Kirk and I went out to Icicle Creek again. This time, we hiked a trail he’d done before, the Icicle Creek Trail. The trailhead can be found at the very end of the same road we’d taken to get to the Icicle Gorge loop trail.

This is an out-and-back trail that winds through dense forest, gently climbing and descending as it goes. Its name is misleading — it doesn’t actually follow the creek. Instead, it cuts through the woods, crossing a handful of tiny creeks, with the sound of Icicle Creek off in the distance. Eventually, it joins Icicle at its confluence with French Creek.

The walk was pleasant, although I regretted my choice of attire — shorts and tank top — because an overcast made it chilly down in the woods. Not exactly cold, but not warm, either. The kind of day when sunlight would have been welcome. I let the GPS in my phone keep track of our trail, but tucked away in the pocket of my cargo shorts as we hiked in a canyon, it had trouble keeping track of where we were. As a result, the track was jagged with its length likely overstated. At the end of the hike, it said we’d gone nearly five miles, but I don’t think we went much more than four.

Fishing at Icicle Creek
One of the campers was fly fishing just downstream from the French/Icicle confluence.

We saw signs of horses — there’s a horse camp and a horse trailer parking area not far from the trailhead — but no horses. No wildlife either.

The sound of the creek got louder and louder until we reached it. There are two campsites there, one on either side of the creek, and a family had set up camp in one of them. A man and girl were fishing in the creek while a woman and another child were walking creekside not far away. French Creek met Icicle Creek right there, with water rushing together from both creeks in a jumble of rocks.

French/Icicle Confluence
The confluence of French (left) and Icicle (right) creeks.

We hung out for a short while, then continued on the trail. A “Stock Crossing” sign marked where horseback riders could cross French Creek. There was a good, strong bridge a bit farther down the trail. I found myself telling Kirk about my horses and how Cherokee couldn’t be made to cross that bridge but Jake would have no trouble at all. (I miss my horses, but not enough to have horses again, despite the fact that I have plenty of room to keep them at my home.)

Kirk on a Log
Kirk clowning around on a log across one of the tiny creeks.

We didn’t walk much farther. Not only was I getting cold as the overcast continued to thicken, but I was concerned about the possibility of rainfall over orchard I’m under contract to protect. There was no cell phone service where I was and no clear look at the sky back toward Wenatchee. On top of all that, I had a meeting near home at 5 PM. So after only an hour on the trail, we turned around and headed back.

Kirk dutifully picked up a few pieces of trash — a beer can and a Starbucks cup (if you can believe that) — along the way. I think I’ll be bringing bags for this job on future hikes. I can’t believe how people can be such pigs.

Back at the trailhead, we loaded the Jeep back up and retraced our route back toward Leavenworth. We had just enough time for lunch at Sleeping Lady before I had to hurry home.

Would I do the hike again? Definitely. But next time, I’ll bring a change of clothes and a better lunch. I’d very much like to see what’s farther up that trail.

Jumpoff Ridge and Clear Lake

A Jeep drive to an exploratory hike.

Kirk and I spent much of Wednesday morning clearing boxes of items out of my RV (AKA the “Mobile Mansion”) as part of a major cleanup. It was a big job made more manageable by a helper who kept me focused and moving. I suspect that if Kirk and I joined forces for any big job, we’d get it done in record time.

Afterwards, we went inside for a break and lunch. I whipped up some pizza dough and picked eggplant, zucchini, and tomatoes from my garden. By 1 PM, we were each making our own pizza masterpieces, which we later ate out in the shade on the deck.

That took us to 2 PM. Half the day was still ahead of us.

We’d talked about taking out the boat for a short ride, but it was windy down on the Columbia so we put it off for another day. Then Kirk suggested taking the Jeep up onto Jumpoff Ridge, where a road wound along the edge of the cliff. I’m always game for a Jeep ride, so we pulled out the Jeep, loaded Penny and some bottled water on board, and took off.

On Jumpoff Ridge

Jumpoff Ridge is the name of the cliff face due south of my home. It rises more than 1,000 feet from the shelf where my home sits. The side facing me is layered basalt columns that are strikingly beautiful, especially with golden first or last light shining on them. Topo maps and satellite images show a road up there that meanders along the top of the cliff. One of the local property owners, in an attempt to avoid contributing to road association fees, claimed he’d use that road to access his land — yes, his 20 acres does include the cliff face and a sliver of land on top. I’d been wanting to check out the road for at least a year and was looking forward to the drive up there.

Jumpoff Ridge Topo
A topo map shows the steep cliff on the north side of Jumpoff Ridge. The road we planned to drive is indicated by the double dashed line atop the cliff. The blue track line to the right of the sharp turn is the road I live on, which was built after USGS topo maps were published.

I knew how to get to the road we sought. Follow Joe Miller Road to Stemilt Loop Road and turn left at the church. Then follow that to Jumpoff Ridge Road. From there, it turns to improved gravel. It’s a moderately steep climb through ponderosa pine with tantalizing glimpses of the orchard-filled land in the Stemilt Hill and Wenatchee Heights areas below. There are about a dozen lots, some of them with homes on them, at the top of the road. One of them belongs to one of my charter clients and I’ve landed and departed with the helicopter from his yard at least a dozen times over the past two or three years.

Top of Jumpoff
At the top of Jumpoff Ridge, the topo map showed a 4-way intersection. But there was no left turn to the radio facility.

That’s also where the road splits. A left hand turn at my client’s house would take us to the road we sought, but the only left hand turn we saw looked like my client’s driveway. We could see the antennas — marked “Radio Facility” on the topo map — beyond and knew that’s where we needed to be. But there didn’t seem to be a way to drive through. So we went straight, looking for another left hand turn.

We found it a while later, but it was gated and locked. We kept going, passing under the Bonneville power lines and a handful of other homes. (When people say I live “out there,” they should come visit these people. They’re way out there.) Realizing the road was not likely to take us where we wanted to go, we turned back and had a closer look at that gate. It was securely locked with signs warning against trespassing. The road was strictly for communications company and power company use.

I guess my freeloading neighbor had no idea what he was talking about when he claimed he’d use that road to access his property. (Or, more likely, he was just a lying sack of sh*t.)

We stopped to consult the map I’d preloaded onto my phone’s Gaia GPS app. I’d already told Kirk about Clear Lake, where I’d stopped in November with my friend Don. It had been frozen hard that pre-winter day, after an early hard freeze. Don had bowled rocks across its surface just to hear the weird echoing sound as they bounced and slid. I thought it was a good alternative destination. The map showed a road off the southwest-bound powerline road (which was not gated) that would “shortcut” to it. It even had a name: Rock Ridge Road. We headed off to find it.

The road climbed steeply up a rocky slope and joined up with the Bonneville Power lines. It veered off into the forest and rejoined the powerlines. Then there was our right hand turn, right where the map said it would be. But there was also an “Authorized Vehicles Only” sign. Really? Ugh.

Faced with the choice of going back or taking the longer way around, we kept moving forward. The road was a lot longer than I remembered. It joined and left the powerlines several times, mostly climbing. There were tall pines, surprisingly green grass, and large meadows. I could easily imagine elk grazing there.

My 1999 Jeep Wrangler drove like a champ. I’ve owned this vehicle since new and, quite frankly, I don’t take very good care of it. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that I routinely beat the crap out of it. It had been flashing the Check Engine light on rough terrain on and off, coupled with a stuttering engine, for months.. Earlier in July I’d finally had it checked and fixed. Turned out to be a wiring harness damaged by rodents — a much cheaper fix than I’d been prepared for. This was a good practice run for our upcoming camping trip to Glacier National Park and I was glad to see it running so smoothly.

After miles of rough road, we finally found and made the right hand turn that would take us down off the ridge: Schaller Road, according to the map. It was rocky, rough, and full of switchbacks. That dumped us onto Upper Basin Loop Road. We caught a glimpse of a pickup truck turning onto a road up ahead — the first vehicle we’d seen in over an hour — and kept on straight until we reached the turn for Clear Lake.

At Clear Lake

Clear Lake
Clear Lake is a small reservoir in the woods.

Clear Lake is a very small reservoir in the Stemilt Basin. It likely collects and stores water for one of the dozens of Stemilt cherry, apple, or pear orchards in the Stemilt Hill area. The road ends at a locked gate close to the lake. We parked and got out for a walk. Penny was very happy to get out of the Jeep, where she’d been riding on Kirk’s lap since our departure from home. There was no one around and it was peaceful.

The topo map showed another larger lake to the west, on the other side of the ridge: Lily Lake. Although our time was somewhat limited — Kirk had a meeting later that evening in Cashmere and the drive had already taken longer than planned — we set off to see if we could catch a glimpse of the other lake. Like me, Kirk has kayaks and we’re always interested in finding new destinations for a leisurely paddle.

Lean To in the Woods
We stumbled upon this old lean-to in the woods up the hill from Clear Lake.

We followed a trail and then a road and then a trail o the west side of the lake and started the climb up the ridge. Near the top, we found an old lean-to made with branches and the remains of a campsite. But not much else.

Thimbleberries
Ripening thimbleberries. While not as tasty as raspberries or blackberries, they do make a nice treat.

We dropped down and followed the road back to the southeast. There was another locked gate and we walked around it. That took us southwest on a road that small trees were already starting to reclaim. Thimbleberry bushes lined the road and Kirk and I picked and ate the reddest ones. A small creek roared in a steep but narrow canyon beside us. After about a quarter mile, the road dead-ended at a dam with a valve: the control for the underground pipeline that was filling Clear Lake from the creek. There was no road or trail beyond to Lily Lake.

Dam
A concrete dam in the forest formed a small pond where a buried pipeline fed Clear Lake. Water over the spillway fed the creek we heard in the ravine beside the road.

After snapping a few photographs, we headed back to where the Jeep waited. We’d visit Lily Lake another day from a road on the other side of the ridge that I’d already spotted on the map. There were other lakes up that way and it would make a good day trip for us, giving me the Jeep outing I wanted with the hiking Kirk preferred. Win-win.

Heading Home

The trip home was uneventful. It was less than a mile back to pavement from Clear Lake. Then back to the church and Joe Miller Road and, eventually, my road.

Kirk snacked on some cold pizza as we loaded up his car. He headed out for his meeting. I heated the rest of the pizza in the oven and snacked on it while unwinding from the bumpy trip, glad to have found an excellent traveling companion for future adventures.

Curious about our route? Click here to see it and all the photos I took.

My Helicopter’s Annual Migration from California

I take a few days off and fly from California to Washington solo.

Last week, I flew my helicopter home from a frost contract in California. I took the opportunity to treat myself to two nights in a bed and breakfast I’d been wanting to stay in for some time. Then I made the solo trip home, taking a coastal route for part of the way. I thought I’d share some information about why I go to California every winter and the highlights of this particular trip.

My Annual Frost Migration

In 2013, I got my first contract as a frost control pilot in California’s north Central Valley. That year, my helicopter was still living in the winter in Arizona and, as I flew it westward with my dog, I realized with a bit of sadness that it would likely never be back in Arizona. When that contract ended, I flew it north to Washington for cherry season. I left my home in Arizona in May 2013 and bought the land for my new home in Washington before the ink on my divorce papers was dry in July 2013.

The helicopter spent that winter in a hangar in Wenatchee. In February, I flew it south again for my second season on frost. That contract required me to stay in the area, so I migrated down in the mobile mansion and stayed there for two months. I came back in April.

My helicopter moved to its new home on my property in Malaga in May 2014, at the start of cherry drying season. By October, it was tucked away inside my building, which I designed primarily to house it, the mobile mansion, and my collection of vehicles. When I got busy with construction on my place in December and needed to shift the RV into the helicopter’s parking space, I moved it back out and into a hangar at Wenatchee Airport. (Thanks, Tyson!) Then, in February, it was back to California for my third frost season. Like my first frost contract in 2013, I didn’t have to live there with it — I wanted to stay home to continue construction and enjoy the spring blooming season. But in late April, it was time to bring it home again.

A lot of folks ask me why I fly the helicopter to and from these agricultural contracts instead of putting it on a trailer. There are three reasons:

  • I don’t have a trailer that would accommodate the helicopter and I don’t want to buy one. A trailer that can support the helicopter and its blades/tailcone properly would cost about $30,000. I could fly a lot of hours for that amount of money. And I’d still have to cover the cost of the drive, although it wouldn’t be nearly as much.
  • I don’t know about you, but the thought of driving down the highway with a $350K investment towed behind me is pretty scary. All it takes is one asshole cutting me off to turn that shiny red machine into a heap of junk on the side of the road. Simply stated: I think flying is safer for it.
  • I like to fly. ‘Nuff said.

I factor in the cost of transporting the helicopter when I decide whether a contract is worth my while. I don’t take contracts that would put me in the red if I didn’t actually fly on contract. That would be dumb.

But with that said, I do often take either passengers for hire or pilots wanting to build time with me on those long repositioning flights. I’ve been doing this since 2008, when I started migrating between Arizona and Washington for cherry season. I cut various deals with various people, depending on what the market will bear. Sometimes passengers or pilots just pay for gas. Other times, they pay a rate that covers all my costs. Most of the time, I collect something in between. This helps make the contract a tiny bit more profitable, often while giving a new pilot a chance to build some flight time in an R44 and gain some valuable cross-country flight experience.

I know I flew solo from Arizona to California that first season (2013) and I’m pretty sure I flew solo from California back to Washington. But in 2014, I had pilots do the flying with me as a passenger on both flights. And on the way down in 2015, another pilot flew while I just sat in my seat, trying not to be bored.

I decided that for the return flight, I’d be be pilot and I’d treat myself to a flight up the coast.

After all, I really do like to fly.

Potential Passengers

I asked a bunch of people who I like if they’d like to join me on that return flight. I got a bunch of interesting responses.

Four people could not go because of work they simply couldn’t get out of. I’d planned my trip for mid-week, so that really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.

One person, who is also a helicopter pilot, wanted to go but had to work. I think he would have gotten out of work if I’d let him share the flying duties with me. But I made it clear up front that I would be doing most of the flying. In fact, I didn’t even want the dual controls in because I didn’t want that counterweight. (I would have put them in for him.) Without the bonus of stick time, it wasn’t worth taking time off from work.

One person couldn’t come because his wife’s mom is seriously ill and they expect her to pass away soon. We agreed that it would be better if he didn’t come. (She hasn’t died yet, but she’s close.) And yes, I did tell him he could bring his wife.

One person couldn’t come because he didn’t want to spend $300 on a one-way plane ticket to Sacramento. He had that money earmarked for other things. “Next time,” he said. I’m not sure if he realizes that there probably won’t be a next time.

And there were the usual collection of pilots wanting to build time. When I told the ones who contacted me that I’d be doing the flying, they all passed on the opportunity to come along as a passenger.

So as Penny and I boarded the flight to Sacramento on Tuesday morning, we knew it would be just the two of us in the helicopter on the way home. I’d fly and drink up all the sights along the way. Penny would do what she always does on the helicopter: sleep.

Prepping for the Return Flight

My flight down to Sacramento didn’t go as smoothly as I would have liked. I was supposed to get into Sacramento at 11 AM, but the 6 AM flight out of Wenatchee was cancelled due to a bird strike on the starboard engine the night before. The morning pilot had seen some of the damage during his preflight walk-around and a mechanic confirmed that the bird — likely an owl — had been ingested into the turboprop engine. That plane wasn’t going anywhere soon.

Through some miracle, I managed to get on the next flight out later that morning. Then an afternoon connection to Sacramento. I stepped off the plane there at around 4 PM and was driving away in a rental car by 4:30.

My whole day in the area was shot to hell. I managed to do some errands before heading out to Rumsey where I was booked at a bed and breakfast for the night. I’ll blog about that in another post.

Wednesday’s forecast called for strong winds from the north. That would cause two problems:

  • Strong, gusty winds make turbulence. I really hate long, bouncy flights, especially when I’m trying to take a scenic route.
  • Strong winds from the north when I’m flying north meant longer flight times and more fuel stops. If I cruise at 110 knots and there’s a 40 knot headwind, that means I’m only doing 70 knots. Hell, I could drive faster than that.

Penny in the Helicopter
Penny lounges in the back seat of the helicopter while I prepped it for the flight home.

So I decided to spend another night in the area and leave early the next morning. In the meantime, I went to the airport, preflighted, wiped down the windows, and prepped it for flight. I’d be taking off as early as possible the next morning.

Locally, the wind was maddeningly calm all day.

The Flight Home

Penny and I were back at the airport at 6:10 AM on Thursday morning. Although the sun hadn’t peeked up over the horizon yet, as far as I was concerned, it was daytime.

I put Penny in the front seat beside me with a cooler full of drinks and snacks in the footwell there, within reach. The back was packed with some luggage and the equipment I’d left with the helicopter over the previous two months: blade tie-downs, cockpit cover, spare fuel pump, and miscellaneous equipment. My GoPro was mounted on the nose with the WiFi turned on. My iPad and iPhone were mounted within reach; I’d use Foreflight on my iPad to navigate and listen to podcasts and music on my iPhone.

The helicopter started right up and I gave it plenty of time to warm up. Then I took off to the west along Cache Creek and opened my flight plan by tapping a button in Foreflight.

Although I didn’t often file a flight plan when flying solo, I’d forgotten to bring along my SPOT Messenger and I wanted some way of being found in the event of a mishap. My flight plan had me heading west along Cache Creek all the way to Clear Lake, then hitting the California Coast at Fort Bragg. But because it was so early and the California Coast is notorious for morning fog and I’d already passed some low clouds near Willits, I took a more northerly route.

Cache Creek at Dawn
Flying up Cache Creek just after dawn.

Clear Lake
The lower end of Clear Lake.

Willits, CA
Low clouds over Willits, CA.

Along the way, I played around with Periscope. This is a Twitter-owned video broadcast service that makes it possible for anyone to broadcast anything to the world in real time. My iPad was mounted in such a way that its camera looked right through the front of the helicopter’s bubble, so the picture wasn’t bad at all. Unfortunately, the rotor sound made it impossible to hear any narration from me, so although I saw viewers’ questions, I couldn’t answer them.

Faced with a choice of following a valley north or striking out across the hills to the coast and following that, I finally headed for the coast. I came down a little green canyon between Westport and DeHaven and banked to the right to start my flight up the coast. (I was broadcasting during this time, so my Periscope followers got to watch it live.)

California Coast
My first sight of the Pacific Ocean from the Helicopter since my trip to Lopez Island last August.

Flying Up the Coast
I flew up the coast at my usual altitude of 500 to 700 feet AGL.

I was surprised, at first, how smooth the flying was. I had been expecting some wind and, with it, turbulence. But just when I started enjoying the smooth air, the turbulence hit. With a vengeance. Within 20 minutes of arriving at the coast, I was bouncing all over my area of the sky.

I headed inland. For another 20 minutes, the bouncing continued. I tried higher elevations to avoid the effect of the wind over the hills — mechanical turbulence. This is the kind of turbulence that most often affects my flights, mostly because I fly so low to the ground. But climbing didn’t help. The only way out of it was going to be to fly somewhere where there was less wind.

Of course, while all this was going on, I was burning fuel at a higher rate than expected. That meant I wasn’t going to make my first fuel stop as far north as Crescent City. I used Foreflight to find a closer alternative. I could make Eureka or Arcata, both of which were on the coast. I checked weather there using the Aeroweather app and saw the wind was much calmer. By that time, the bouncing had stopped anyway and flight was smooth again. So I hooked up with the South Fork of the Eel River at Myers Flat, followed that down to the Eel River, and followed that down to Fortuna.

At the coast, a marine layer had moved in but was burning off quickly. I flew just below the clouds, north from Fortuna to Eureka, where I landed for fuel at Murray (EKA) and closed my flight plan. Their pumps are ancient and attendant-run, which didn’t bother me in the least. When I do long cross-country flights, I don’t mind paying more for someone else to do the pumping. I let Penny out and we went into the FBO for a bathroom break. They had a surprisingly large pilot shop there with lots of goodies. But I wasn’t in the mood to shop so I didn’t linger.

I chatted with the attendant about the weather. I really wanted to fly up the coast but I really didn’t want to do scud-running along the way. He thought it would clear up. I figured I’d head north along the coast as long as I could see, then strike out to the west. I whipped up and filed another flight plan, then added a quart of oil and fired up the helicopter. Minutes later, Penny and I were airborne again, heading north on the east side of Arcata Bay.

We stayed on the coast for quite a while. I turned on my helicopter’s nosecam as we flew up the coast past the Redwood National Forest and various other places. The views were amazing. There were sandy stretches of beaches, sheer cliffs, and rocky islands. I saw sea lions and sea birds. But I think it was the sheer number of waterfalls tumbling off the cliffs into the Pacific Ocean that really stood out for me. It was just the kind of trip I’d hoped for. It was only after I thought I’d shot at least a half hour of spectacular video that I reached down to shut off nosecam — and realized that it hadn’t been turned on. Duh-oh! I did manage to get some good shots and video later on, but not until after a fine mist started moving in.

Waterfall
There’s nothing quite as awe-inspiring as a waterfall tumbling off rugged cliffs into the ocean.

The mist turned to rain around Gold Beach, OR and I decided to move inland in search of clearer weather. Unfortunately, there was no joy. I took an incoming call from a pilot friend based in California who’d just gotten some bad news about an engine overspeed on his R44. We chatted for a while as I flew between green hills and low clouds while a light rain pelted the cockpit bubble. Then the call dropped and I continued through the muck in silence.

Green Hills Near Umpqua
There was no way to keep the rain off the nosecam’s lens cover. This was the view as we headed northeast near Umpqua, OR.

I hooked up with I-5 near Yoncalla, OR. From that point, it was a bit of IFR — I follow roads — flying. It wasn’t that I had to follow the road — I could see fine. It’s just that there was no reason to fly further east because mountain obscuration made it impossible to cross the mountains anyway.

I stopped for fuel at Creswell. I’d stopped there before. I pumped my own fuel, used the restroom, and checked the oil. It was still raining lightly. One of the interesting things there is a vending machine that sells aviation oil. I didn’t need to use it — I learned long ago to always carry at least two spare quarts and actually had six on board for this flight — and I wish I’d taken a photo of it.

We were there less than 15 minutes. I continued north along I-5, now in Oregon’s “central valley.” I broadcast another Periscope video just past Eugene, then peeled away abeam Harrisburg to the northeast. Although I couldn’t see the mountains at all, I still had high hopes of crossing the Cascades at the foot of Mount Hood’s north side. After all, how big could this weather system be?

Apparently, it could be pretty big. I got within 40 miles of Mount Hood and still couldn’t see it. If anything, the clouds were lower and thicker. I heard some helicopter pilots chatting on one of the frequencies about low ceilings. One was doing training and the other was doing powerline survey work. They shared information about holes in the weather but since I didn’t know any of the places they talked about, none of it helped me.

Near Mt. Hood
My track took me pretty close to Mount Hood. I never saw it. My track is the teal dots in this map capture; the red dots represent geotagged photos.

So the scud running began. I wasn’t in the mood for it at all, so I didn’t put much effort into it. Instead of following valleys to the northeast that might have got me closer to my destination, I just headed north, hopping over hills and ducking under clouds along the way. I knew that eventually I’d reach the Columbia River, my old standby for crossing the Cascades. And sure enough, just when I thought the ceilings couldn’t get any lower, I found myself at the edge of a drop down to the water. There were clouds below me, but a big enough hole to dive right through. I descended at about 1500 feet per minute and leveled out about 400 feet over the river’s surface.

Columbia River
Leveled off over the Columbia River not far from Multnomah Falls.

My reward: an amazing view of Multnomah Falls, off to my right. (Sorry — no photos. My nosecam faces forward, not sideways.)

I followed the river northeast, flying in a sort of tunnel created by the walls of the gorge and the low clouds. I overflew the Bonneville Dam and Cascade Locks and the town of Hood River, which I really liked before it got so upscale. At Lyle, one of my least favorite places on earth, I turned to a more northward direction. That eventually put me over the Yakima Indian Reservation. I don’t know if it’s pretty. By this time — more than 7 hours of travel, including stops — I was tired and just wanted to be home. But the sky gods were going to make me work for it. They threw just enough headwind and turbulence in my way to make me ready for another fuel stop at Yakima.

The FBO’s fuel guy did all the work. I got something to drink and relaxed a while in a comfy chair while Penny looked around for dropped popcorn. We’ve spent entirely too much time at McCormick at Yakima.

Fueled up and feeling refreshed, we headed out again, continuing north. Although I could have gone direct to my home from Yakima, I had a small task to do along the way — I needed to check out a possible landing zone for an anniversary flight in June. The location was off I-90 across the river from Vantage.

That done, and feeling great to be back in very familiar territory, I dropped down and raced up the Columbia River, only 100 or 200 feet from the surface. Wanapum Reservoir was full again — it had been drained for dam repairs all last year — and it was great to do one of my favorite flights. I passed Sunland, where the folks who sold me my property live in the summer months, Cave B and the Gorge Amphitheater, and Crescent Bar. I saw a huge herd of elk down on West Bar before beginning my climb to clear the wires that crossed the river between the mouth of Lower Moses Coulee and Rock Island.

Then I was climbing up toward my home and my old landing zone was in sight. I set the helicopter down on the grass and let Penny out while I cooled down the engine and shut everything down.

Old Landing Zone
I shot this from my deck while having a very late lunch.

It was almost 3 PM.

I left the helicopter outside while I went in to make myself a good meal and relax. The wind kicked up and, for a while, I thought it would have to spend the night outside. But the wind died down after 6 and I got my ATV hooked up to the platform and repositioned it on my driveway’s landing zone. Then I started up the helicopter and moved it onto the platform. When the blades stopped spinning, I locked them in place and used the ATV to pull everything into the garage beside my RV.

RVs
Recreational vehicles? Must be. It’s an RV garage, after all.

Track Log
Here’s my track log for the entire flight. I was about 20-30 minutes into the flight when I remembered to turn it on, so it doesn’t accurately show my starting point.

According to my GPS tracklog, I’d traveled about 750 miles in 6-1/2 hours of moving time. It had been a great flight with lots of different flying conditions and things to see to keep it interesting. I’d enjoyed it, despite the moments of turbulence. It’s a shame that I had to do the flight alone. I’m sure every single person I invited would have loved it.

Next time? Maybe — if there is a next time.